One of the main goals of economic globalization is that every place on earth should be more or less like every other place. Whether it’s the US, Europe, or once-distant places like Asia, Africa, or South America, all countries are meant to develop the same way. The same franchise fast food, the same films and music, the same jeans, shoes, and cars, the same urban landscapes, the same personal, cultural, and spiritual values. Monoculture. If you’ve traveled a lot, you’ve seen that this is rampantly happening already.
Such a model serves the marketing and efficiency needs of the huge global corporations that the system is designed to benefit. Whether cultural, political, or biological, diversity is a direct threat to the efficiency goals of global corporations, which operate on a scale that requires, as far as possible, similar appeals in every market in the world.
Free trade agreements and bureaucracies like the WTO, NAFTA, and the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement, have the specific mandate to create and enforce rules that accelerate the global homogenization process — the economic integration of all countries into the same set of standards and rules created because they work best for corporations — meanwhile preventing any country from regulating corporations to protect local resources, livelihoods, culture, labor rights, or health standards. Such local rules defy central planning and control.
But that is only the external homogenization process. To be truly efficient and successful, they also seek to make over our internal landscape, to remake human beings themselves — our minds, ideas, values, behaviors, and desires — to create a monoculture of humans that’s compatible with the redesigned external landscapes so that our minds and values will match the systems and technologies around us, like standard-gauge railways or compatible computers.
This assignment of internal homogenization goes to the global telecommunications system — television, advertising, computers, the Internet, and e-commerce. We could surely add film, radio, music, and education, which are increasingly merging with technology. These instruments speak directly into the minds of people everywhere, imprinting them with a unified pattern of thought, a unified set of imagery and ideas, a single framework of understanding for how life should be lived, thus carrying the homogenization and commodification mandate directly inside the brain. What results is a homogenized mental landscape that nicely matches the franchises, freeways, suburbs, and high-rises.
Television is the most important thing in the world that we need to start talking about again. Television is a more efficient medium for cloning global consciousness with a homogenized set of corporate values. I’m going to give you a sense of its scale and impact by repeating some astounding statistics from the United States, but similar patterns can be found all over the world.
In the United States, 99.5% of all homes have television sets. Ninety-five percent of the population watches television every day. The average home has a TV set going more than eight hours per day, even if no one is watching. The average adult viewer watches TV more than four hours a day. The average child age eight to thirteen watches about four hours per day. At age two to four, they watch almost three hours. That’s not counting television in school.
These are amazing statistics, when you stop to think about them. Half the population is watching more than four hours per day. How is that even possible? By heavy viewing every night and then all weekend also. People watch more TV in the United States than they do anything else besides sleeping, working or going to school. In the United States, television is the main thing people do. It has replaced community life, family life, culture. It has replaced the environment. It has become the environment that people interact with every day. It has become the culture too, and it’s not “popular culture,” which sounds somehow democratic. It expresses corporate culture, and that of very few corporations at that. Ours is the first generation to have essentially moved its life inside media, to have largely replaced direct contact with people and nature for simulated, edited, recreated versions. Television is the original virtual reality.
If you were an anthropologist from the Andromeda Galaxy sent to study earth people, and you hovered over the United States chances are you’d report back something like this: They’re sitting night after night in dark rooms; they’re staring at a light. Their eyes are not moving. They’re not thinking. Their brains are in a passive-receptive state — and nonstop imagery is pouring into their brains from thousands of miles away. These images being sent by a very small number of people are of toothpaste and cars and guns and people running around in bathing suits. The whole thing looks like some weird experiment in mind control. And that is what it is.
I was once in the advertising business, for many years, actually. I quit that some time ago, but I learned that people really doubt the invasive power of television imagery. You are smart. You are educated. You can select from among the images that you see. But let’s try again. Let me ask you this. Can you get a picture in your brain of Ronald McDonald? The Energizer bunny? How about the Taco Bell Chihuahua? Or Dave, the owner of Wendy’s. Or Jerry Springer. Or David Letterman. Or O.J. Simpson.
These images live in your brain. Can you erase them? I don’t think so. They’re yours forever. Every advertiser knows that images are unstoppable. Your intellect cannot save you from them.
The average television viewer is seeing about 23,000 television commercials every year. One may say “toothpaste,” one may say “car,” but the intent of every one of those 23,000 messages is identical: to get people to view life as a nonstop stream of commodity satisfactions. Buy something. Do it now. Commodities are life. This message is the same everywhere on earth.
The last time I checked the numbers, about eighty percent of the global population had access to television. Most industrialized countries report similar viewing habits to our own. In Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Greece, Poland, and many countries in Europe and South America, the average person watches three or four hours per day. In Japan and Mexico, they watch more than here. In many parts of the world, the TV they see comes from the United States and other countries in the West, with very few local programs. Even in places on earth where there are no roads–tiny tropical islands, icy tundras of the north, or log cabins–they are sitting night after night watching a bunch of white people in Dallas driving sleek cars, or standing around swimming pools or drinking martinis while plotting ways to do each other in, or Baywatch, the most popular show in the world. Life in Texas, California, and New York is made to seem the ultimate in life’s achievements, while local culture, even where it’s still extremely vibrant and alive, which is true still for a fair amount of the earth, is made to seem backward and unworthy.
People everywhere are beginning to carry the same images that we do, and are craving the same commodities that we crave, from cars to hair sprays to Barbie dolls to Palm Pilots. TV is turning everyone into everyone else. It’s cloning cultures to be like ours. In Brave New World, Huxley envisioned this cloning process via drugs and genetic engineering. We have those too. But TV does nearly as well.
The Global Corporate Monster
The next question, of course, is who is sending us these images? The vast majority of global television imagery, as well as film, books, newspapers, and entertainment imagery, are being sent out to billions of people and now Internet outlets as well, by a tiny number of gigantic global corporations, that are getting bigger and bigger through mergers and consolidations. This process is directly assisted by the rules of the WTO and other global institutions that grease the pathways for their investments and takeovers and mergers.
We’re talking about AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and maybe three or four others controlling a great majority of the world of broadcast, publishing, and entertainment systems.
Here is a quick briefing on what AOL-Time Warner owns, (besides AOL and Time Warner): Warner Brothers Films and Television, CNN, TNT, TBS, Court TV, HBO, Cartoon Network, CineMax, New Line Films, Time Magazine, Fortune, People, and Sports Illustrated; the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Braves, the Hanna Barbara animation studio, as well as major shares in movie theater companies, dozens of TV stations, satellites, cable systems everywhere on earth including Asia, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. Disney owns Disneyland, Disney World, Euro Disney, Disney Channel, ABC TV, ABC Radio, ESPN, A&E, Entertainment and the History Channel, Miramax, Touchstone and Walt Disney Pictures, as well as the Anaheim Angels and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They have tremendous holdings in TV stations, cable systems, and satellites throughout the world.
Fox News Corporation owns Fox TV Network, Fox News Channel, Twentieth Century Studios, Golf TV Channel, twenty-two US TV stations, 130 daily newspapers, twenty-three magazines, Harper Collins Publishers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have interests in satellite companies, TV stations, and other media throughout Europe, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.
Whose Ideal is the Internet, anyway?
Why are we not in front of Disney and Time Warner? Do we love them ourselves? That’s something we have to start to look at. It’s got to be included in our activism. And that’s just television, the old technology. Now we have computers. We have the Internet. Now we are free and involved and interactive and independent. We can network with each other and get organized and mold the world to our wishes. But is the Internet really our technology or is it theirs? Is it really decentralizing? The ultimate politics of the computer revolution are still unclear. But it’s surely the oddest of revolutions, since everybody on all sides seems to be in agreement about it.
Everyone thinks it’s great, the right and the left, the corporations and the anti-corporate activists, the Al Gores and the George Bushes, the engineers and the artists, all express utopian visions of democracy and empowerment brought by computers and the Internet. But is this right? Is it really a new democracy? Is equity improved?
We know that corporations are pretty excited about this revolution and they keep selling it to us via terms like “empowerment” and “freedom” in millions of dollars worth of ads. A decade ago we saw TV commercials of lines of depressed men in gray suits marching in a dreary world. Computers would set them free. Now the ads show happy monks in Asia, happy children in Africa, happy farmers in Japan, all joining the Internet revolution. Which you had better do, too. Everyone should think different, but all at the same time and with the same machine.
Meanwhile, political leaders advocate wiring up every classroom here and in the rest of the world, costing taxpayers billions of dollars. This despite research that proves that immersing kids in computers doesn’t make them happier or smarter or more creative or alive. Maybe the opposite: alienated, lonely, and depressed. Kids don’t learn better from computers, they learn best from nature, other kids, live play, teachers. But we’re in a technological stampede.
Are computers empowering? Well, yes and no. They serve us well in many ways, even I don’t deny that. They help us organize our work, write, edit, and communicate with like-minded people around the world. We can disseminate ideas, build web pages, we can build demonstrations through our e-mails. That’s the good news. But what’s the rest of the story? There are a couple of points advertisers have left out.
What will they do to our privacy? Make a purchase online and you are automatically adding to huge accessible data banks that know everything about you, your job, your family, your buying habits, credit status, social security number, and habits you might rather nobody knew about. Computers have let loose the greatest invasion of privacy in history and there is a thriving industry selling data about you. The same technology is being used in the workplace to achieve a kind of surveillance impossible until now. Anyone with a clerical job has to worry a lot about having their keystrokes counted and I’m not even mentioning its uses in military or police surveillance or corporate surveillance.
Are we empowered yet?
What about the digital revolution’s impact on our environment? They love to describe computers as a “clean” industry, unlike those dreadful smokestack industries, but the real difference is that the junk from computers goes into the ground and water rather than into the air. Computer chip manufacture is responsible for more superfund sites than any other industry, especially in California, and we now realize that silicon chip manufacture requires huge amounts of pure water, exacerbating the global water crisis.
What about e-commerce? The gigantic effort by the United States government to push rules through the global trading system to ban all tariffs and taxes on e-commerce is cynical and undemocratic. It was one of our least-noted victories that we stopped that “no taxes, no tariffs on e-commerce” in Seattle. That would have been a deathblow to an entire class of hands-on, small-scale retailers and artisans, particularly in the Third World. This entire effort amounts to the old planned obsolescence strategy, but this time to entire economic systems, and in many cases, entire ways of life.
The editors of Wired magazine like to say the computer revolution has brought a new political structure to the planet. The symbol of today is no longer the atom, it’s the Web, a decentralized form. The new Web structure “elevates the power of the small player” and brings a new techno-spiritualism. Judging by the amount of people ritually engaged with their computers, I would say techno-spiritualism is here. But this idea that the old political center has been wiped out by PCs and e-mail and web pages, and that we’re now in a new, computer-enhanced democracy. Well, somebody forgot to tell the transnational corporations that the real power is no longer in the center and that they have lost control.
The news might surprise the two-hundred largest corporations in the world that amount for thirty percent of all economic activity on the planet. They don’t seem to have noticed that they lost power. They keep cutting down forests, building huge dams, monopolizing oil, dominating communications, and controlling publications. They know their powers are growing and computers have had a central role in encouraging corporate giantism. In fact, the modern global corporation could not exist at its present scale, operate at the speed that it does, without the global networks to keep thousand-armed enterprises in touch seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, instantaneously moving billions of dollars in assets around the world without the ability of any nation state to regulate it.
So what kind of revolution is this? To use a term like “individual empowerment” to summarize the effects of the computer revolution is badly misjudging the ultimate social, political, and economic outcomes of this revolution. While the Internet and computer surely can help us feel powerful and are terribly useful in very many ways, while we’re e-mailing and networking among our virtual communities, global corporations use these same instruments at a scale that makes our use pale by comparison. When they hit their keys they move billions of dollars from banks in Geneva to, say, Sarawak, and a forest gets cut down. Or they buy billions in national currencies, resell them an hour later, causing whole currencies to crash. While we move information, they express power. There’s a difference.
And, in conclusion, I’ll say there’s a homily to remember: it’s not just who benefits from this technology, it’s who benefits most. It’s like dear old George Bush’s tax plan. He says everybody benefits — and everybody does. But who benefits most? You may get a hundred-dollar rebate at the end of the year; he and his friends get hundreds of thousands. So it is with the computer revolution. It’s not the small player that benefits most, it’s the big players. And for the rest of us, it’s a net loss. I think that some day we will conclude that global computer networks that we’ve celebrated for their democratic potential, that we call empowering, are facilitating the greatest centralization of unregulated, unaccountable global corporate power ever.
Jerry Mander is one of the foremost critics of current trends in globalization and technology. He is the program director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, co-founder of the International Forum on Globalization, author of In the Absence of the Sacred, and co-author of The Case Against the Global Economy.
This article is an excerpt of a lecture given at the Technology & Globalization 2001 conference, cosponsored with Lapis, IFG and the New York Open Center